Google’s prototype Chinese search engine links users’ activity to their phone numbers, report claims

Гугл’s secretive plans in China are attracting renewed scrutiny from privacy advocates.  

The tech giant is said to be building a prototype version of a censored Chinese search engine that links users’ activity to their personal phone number, according to the Intercept

In doing so, it would be able to comply with the Chinese government’s censorship requirements, increasing the chances that such a product would launch there in the future.  

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A bipartisan group of 16 US lawmakers asked Google if it would comply with China's internet censorship and surveillance policies should it re-enter the search engine market there

A bipartisan group of 16 US lawmakers asked Google if it would comply with China's internet censorship and surveillance policies should it re-enter the search engine market there

A bipartisan group of 16 US lawmakers asked Гугл if it would comply with China’s internet censorship and surveillance policies should it re-enter the search engine market there

CHINESE INTERNET CRACKDOWN

While China is home to the world’s largest number of internet users, a 2015 report by US think tank Freedom House found that the country had the most restrictive online use policies of 65 nations it studied, ranking below Iran and Syria.

But China has maintained that its various forms of web censorship are necessary for protecting its national security.

It has cracked down on VPNs after the passing of a controversial cybersecurity bill last November that tightened restrictions on online freedom of speech and imposed new rules on service providers.

Since the regulation took effect this June, authorities have closed dozens of celebrity gossip blogs and issued new rules around online video content to eliminate programmes deemed offensive.

Recent reports have suggested Гугл plans to build a censored version of its search engine in China, as part of a project called ‘Dragonfly.’ 

The app would have to comply with China’s rigid censorship laws, which would mean restricting access to content that government officials consider unfavorable.

Search terms about human rights, democracy, religion and peaceful protests will be blocked from the app.  

Linking searches with a user’s phone number would allow officials to easily track activity on the platform, potentially allowing them to target political activists, journalists and dissenters.

‘This is very problematic from a privacy point of view, because it would allow far more detailed tracking and profiling of people’s behavior,’ Cynthia Wong, senior internet researcher with Human Rights Watch, told the Intercept. 

‘Linking searches to a phone number would make it much harder for people to avoid the kind of overreaching government surveillance that is pervasive in China.’  

Dragonfly is also designed to replace weather and air pollution data with information provided by an unnamed source in Beijing, the Intercept reported. 

The search engine has already been ‘essentially hardcoded to force [Chinese-provided] data,’ the Intercept added.  

It comes as Гугл faces mounting pressure from US lawmakers to disclose more information about its dealings in China.      

A bipartisan group of 16 US lawmakers asked Гугл on Thursday if it would comply with China’s internet censorship and surveillance policies should it re-enter the search engine market there.     

More than 1,000 Гугл employees, six U.S. senators and at least fourteen human rights groups have written to the company expressing concern about its China ambitions.

Since then, a list has been circulating inside the company detailing seven employees who say they quit their jobs at Гугл over a lack of transparency.  

One of those employees includes Jack Poulson, a research scientists who had worked for Гугл for more than two years. 

Poulson said he resigned because he felt the company was not honoring its commitment to human rights norms in designing the search app.  

He told Reuters that executives would not specify to him where the company would draw the line on agreeing to Chinese demands.

‘Unfortunately, the virtually unanimous response over the course of three very vocal weeks of escalation was: «I don’t know either,»‘ Poulson said.

Google declined to comment but said it had been 'investing for many years to help Chinese users' and described its 'work on search' for China as 'exploratory' and 'not close to launching'

Google declined to comment but said it had been 'investing for many years to help Chinese users' and described its 'work on search' for China as 'exploratory' and 'not close to launching'

Гугл declined to comment but said it had been ‘investing for many years to help Chinese users’ and described its ‘work on search’ for China as ‘exploratory’ and ‘not close to launching’

He was among a handful who resigned, he told the Intercept online publication, which first reported on his action.

Гугл declined to comment directly on the lawmakers’ letter or the resignations but said in a statement it had been ‘investing for many years to help Chinese users’ and described its ‘work on search’ for China as ‘exploratory’ and ‘not close to launching.’

Reuters reported last month that Гугл planned to seek government clearance to provide a version of its search engine in China that blocks some websites and search terms.

Programmers and engineers at the company have created several versions of an Android app, called ‘Maotai’ and ‘Longfei,’ one of which has been presented to the Chinese government. 

Should it be approved by government officials, a final version could be launched as soon as the next six to nine months.  

Members of the U.S. House of Representatives, including liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans, said in their letter on Thursday they had ‘serious concerns’ about the potential step.

READ THE FULL LETTER PENNED BY Гугл EMPLOYEES PROTESTING A CENSORED CHINESE SEARCH ENGINE 

Sign this letter

To make ethical choices, Googlers need to know what we’re building. Right now we don’t. So we, the undersigned, are calling for a Code Yellow(1) on Ethics & Transparency at Гугл.

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Our industry has entered a new era of ethical responsibility: the choices we make matter on a global scale. Yet most of us only learned about Project Dragonfly through news reports in early August. Dragonfly is reported to be an effort to provide search and personalized mobile news to China, in compliance with Chinese government censorship and surveillance requirements. Eight year ago, after Гугл Pulled censored websearch out of China, Sergey Brin explained the decision, saying: “In some aspects of [government] policy, particularly with respect to censorship, with respect to surveillance of dissidents, I see some earmarks of totalitarianism.” Dragonfly and Гугл’s return to China raise urgent moral and ethical issues, the substance of which we are discussing elsewhere.

Here we address an underlying structural problem: currently we do not have the information required to make ethically-informed decisions about our work, our projects, and our employment. That the decision to build dragonfly was мейд in secret, and progressed even with the AI Principles in place, makes clear that the principles alone are not enough. We urgently need more transparency, a seat at the table, and a commitment to clear and open processes. Гугл employees need to know what we’re building.

In the face of these significant issues, we, the undersigned, are calling for a Code Yellow addressing Ethics and Transparency, asking leadership to work with employees to implement concrete transparency and oversight process, including the following:

Signed,

(1) A Code Yellow is a standardized process in Engineering for addressing new or long-simmering business-critical problems that span multiple groups. A Code Yellow includes: an executive responsible for the process, an overall owner, a clear list of objectives to be resolved before closing the Code Yellow, and weekly (or more frequent) updates to any interested parties.

Source: BuzzFeed News 

The letter asked if Гугл would ‘ensure that individual Chinese citizens or foreigners living in China, including Americans, will not be surveilled or targeted through Гугл applications.’ 

Representative David Cicilline, a Democrat and signer of the letter, wrote on Twitter that ‘Гугл should not be helping China crack down on free speech and political dissent.’

The company could face questions about China when it testifies on privacy issues before a Senate panel on Sept. 26. 

Гугл’s main search platform has been blocked in China since 2010, but it has been attempting to make new inroads into the world’s largest smartphone market by users.

Гугл’s re-entry is not guaranteed as China has stepped up scrutiny of business dealings involving U.S. tech firms including Facebook Inc and Apple Inc amid intensifying trade tensions between Beijing and Washington.

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